It’s impossible for us to choose a single favorite genre from the wealth that cinema offers. But if some sort of “Sophie’s Choice” situation were to occur, we probably would be able to point to one that occupies a more central place in our hearts: science fiction. The term encompasses multitudes: sci-fi runs the gamut from stark, philosophical inquiry to space western to brainless robot-go-bang-bang; it hybridizes beautifully with other genres like comedy, horror and romance and as such is maybe the most expansive and elastic genre of them all. This week, we’re using the opening of Justin Lin‘s stark philosophical inquiry “Star Trek Beyond” as an excuse to revisit our old list of 25 sci-fi favorites since 2000, and to expand it to a whopping 50.
The ease with which we sailed to 50 titles and the number we still felt bad about excluding speaks volumes about the health of this thriving and somehow ever-more-necessary genre. We’re hardly the first to notice that recent world events feel distinctly dystopian, and seeing various scenarios play out as extended thought experiments is something that only this genre really affords us.
Expanding the list was also interesting, insofar as noting how much or how little our feelings have changed over the past few years. Aside from including a few titles we’d excluded before for prosaic reasons, and a couple of new entries in the top half that are films released after the original list was drawn up, the passage of time has buffed some titles to a higher shine, while others have slightly lost their luster. But we haven’t undergone a 180 on any of our previous inclusions, though the luxury of a longer list has meant in many cases that we’ve taken a more critical view of their relative positions.
Writer Edmund Crispin once said that “science fiction is the last refuge of the morality tale,” and perhaps, living in such challenging and morally murky times, that’s why we find ourselves so compelled by it. Or perhaps we just really dig lasers and neoprene outfits! Either way, here are the 50 films of this millennium that represent the absolute best that the king of genres, science fiction (shh! Don’t tell drama or westerns that we said that!), has to offer.
50. “Remainder” (2015)
There’s a thin line between clever and clever-clever, and video artist Omer Fast doesn’t always walk it successfully in his debut feature based on the novel by British writer Tom McCarthy. But that’s hardly even a criticism when it comes to this type of conceptual sci-fi: “Remainder” may be chilly, pretentious and at times alienating in its Moebius-strip narrative of endlessly looping causes-and-effects, but it’s seldom less than fascinating. A deliberately dissociative Tom Sturridge plays a young man given a massive payoff when he’s the victim of a freak accident which leaves him with a kind of monomaniacal selective amnesia. He then uses his wealth to recreate a fragment of memory down to the most obsessive detail, assisted by a resourceful and discreet factotum (Arsher Ali). It’s never particularly emotive, but as a pared-down mash-up of “Primer,” “Synecdoche NY” and “Memento,” this investigation into identity has its own prismatic, crystalline appeal.
49. “2046” (2004)
Wispy and oblique even by the standards of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, “2046” is nevertheless as soul-tinglingly beautiful as we’ve come to expect from the master director, even if it doesn’t feel as substantial as it could have been. Essentially a sequel to his masterpiece “In The Mood For Love,” the film sees Tony Leung’s Chow return, now romancing (or sometimes not romancing) various women while penning a series of stories set in the year 2046. The meta-nature of the narrative means that the film is sci-fi only by the loosest sense, but it’s still a thrill to get to see Wong turn his hand to a neon fantasia of a future. And if the pieces don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole (the Cannes premiere was somewhat rushed, and there’s a slight sense that the film was never quite finished), it nevertheless captures the very particular kind of melancholy that only Wong can pull off.
48. “Advantageous” (2015)
Dispiritingly still a rarity in being a female-directed sci-fi picture, “Advantageous” is a reminder why we need more diversity in the genre, bringing a unique perspective that makes it feel entirely refreshing. The Sundance-approved film directed by Jennifer Phang sees Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, who co-wrote the script), a spokesperson for a cosmetic surgery company in the near-future, elect to have a procedure that will give her a new, younger body, only to find it difficult to connect with her daughter afterwards. The writing is occasionally stiff and the acting somewhat variable, but it creates a fascinating world on a meagre budget and is positively bursting with ideas and meaty themes, most of which —aging, the roles of women in business, racial identity, motherhood— simply wouldn’t have occurred to most white male filmmakers. Netflix bought the rights, and it’s well worth checking out.
47. “The World’s End” (2013)
Easily the most divisive of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Cornetto Trilogy, the third, darkest and most sci-fi installment is less eager to please than the earlier films, but feels more resonant over time. Following wash-out Gary King (Pegg in his greatest performance)’s attempt to reunite his old friends for a once-aborted pub crawl around his hometown, only to discover that the place has been steadily taken over by robots, the film sees Wright’s craft reaching greater heights (the fight scenes are world class) and finding a newly melancholy tone in his work that feels like new ground. And if you’re looking for an insight into the British psyche that caused the self-destructive decision to go for Brexit, look no further than Gary King scorching the earth and telling the alien consciousness to “fuck off back to Legoland” in order to achieve self-determination.
46. “Midnight Special” (2016)
The most “science fiction-y” bells and whistles in Jeff Nichols‘ thrumming, low-key “Midnight Special” may be the weakest elements of the film, but the overall mood —a yearning for understanding beyond what we know— is potent enough to warrant a placement here. Much was made in advance of the film’s debts to Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter —perhaps too much, in the sense that it disappointed those who went in hoping to scratch the kind of ’80s childish-wonder/horror itch that Netflix’s “Stranger Things” does so effectively. In fact, Nichols’ film, which stars Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Jaeden Lieberher, is far more thoughtful and introspective. The otherworldly elements —a child with supernatural powers, a government conspiracy, extra-terrestrial communiques— function as merely a science fiction framework allowing Nichols to probe the concept of fatherhood to a painfully personal degree, as well as the existential dilemmas that raising a child can pose.
45. “Another Earth” (2011)
In 2011, there suddenly came a new star in the indie sky: Brit Marling appeared as both cowriter and star of two films at that year’s Sundance that had at least sci-fi inflections. The new-agey-cult story “Sound of My Voice” from Zal Batmanglij may be even stronger, but for a robust sci-fi premise, “cult leader who may be from the future” is pipped at the post by “second Earth appears, inhabited by exact doubles of every person on the planet.” Mike Cahill‘s “Another Earth” was somewhat, erm, eclipsed by Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” but it is very different, with a less apocalyptically doomy atmosphere and a sense of intrigue regarding the possibility of redemption that this cleverly unexplained event might represent. Here, Marling’s student and William Mapother‘s composer collide in a tragic accident, and the knowledge that their two lives may be different on Earth 2 begins to look like a second chance.
44. “Serenity” (2005)
There’s purist, cerebral “hard” sci-fi, there’s space opera, and Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” TV show falls joyously and unapologetically into the latter category. But it only lasted one 14-episode season, whereupon the fan clamor became so great that a couple of years later came the movie version “Serenity.” Starring the same cast —Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite and Summer Glau— rustling up the same chemistry and chowing into the same quippy, characterful dialogue, Whedon’s TV provenance also shows in less positive ways: it’s not hugely cinematic and the plotting feels a little episodic. But the transition mostly works well, with Fillion’s Captain Mal leading his motley crew on a surprisingly moving and ultimately very satisfying big-screen outing boasting genuine scares courtesy of villains The Reavers and Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s icily professional killer, plenty of laughs and even a soupcon of heartbreak (we’ll never forget you, Wash).
43. “Coherence” (2014)
An inventive puzzle-box of an indie that’s still sadly underseen, “Coherence” feels like it should get the kind of ever-growing cult audience that “Primer” picked up over the years. Directed by Gore Verbinski collaborator James Ward Byrkit, it’s the kind of film that works best the less you know about it. But broadly speaking, it focuses on a well-to-do L.A. dinner party (“Buffy” actor Nicholas Brendon being the most recognizable face) that must tackle a quantum-physics-tastic situation when a comet passes overhead. It’s ingeniously written and resourcefully made, with Byrkit stripping the story right down to its bones, but without making the characters or dialogue feel perfunctory. Yet it’s narratively satisfying in a way that mind-benders of this type aren’t always, ending on a lingering note of existential dread that feels deeply earned. It’s rough around the edges, and yet few low-budget sci-fi pics feel as accomplished or exciting.
42. “Cloverfield” (2008)
Love him or loathe him, J.J. Abrams undoubtedly has a feel for what audiences want from mainstream entertainment that few can match. But the secret of his Bad Robot factory isn’t so much in the choice of material as it is the strength of execution, and “Cloverfield” exemplifies that. Uniting two hugely talented Abrams collaborators, Drew Goddard (who wrote) and Matt Reeves (who directed), the film is the why-didn’t-I-think-of-that concept of “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Godzilla,” which was always going to connect. But it’s lasted — even growing in reputation— because Reeves’ direction is extraordinarily well-choreographed, capturing the chaos of disaster without making it incomprehensible, and because Goddard’s script finds the humanity among the people on the ground. For a film that could have just been a rollercoaster ride, it holds up incredibly well nearly a decade on.
41. “The Martian” (2015)
While the “Ridley Scott and Matt Damon make science fun!” chatter that surrounded this film’s release became tiresome to the nerdlingers among us who have always found science pretty fun, we have to admit that “The Martian” did well to take a geeky concept and deliver such a pacy, witty entertainment. Mining the national resource that is Damon’s everyman charm, Scott made his most satisfying film in years courtesy of Drew Goddard’s peppy script (based on the bestseller by Andy Weir) and a little help from the incongruously ABBA-heavy soundtrack. It’s a film about problem/solution derring-do more than any particularly deep thoughts about isolation or identity, but despite the starry support (Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor), it’s largely a one-man show, and making a big, crowd-pleasing hit out of one guy talking to himself and growing potatoes in his own shit is no mean feat.